How many times have you bought a fresh bunch of herbs from the grocery store just to use a few sprigs before they go bad? What about a bundle of bananas you meant to have for breakfast each day, but they turned brown and mushy after only taking two?
We’ve all been there—having every intention to eat the food you buy, but it spoils before you have the chance. While making a plan for your groceries and not overbuying food are the best ways to reduce food waste, being smart about storage will help extend the shelf life of the food you buy, reducing your food waste and saving you both money and greenhouse gas emissions.
Since reducing food waste is a leading Drawdown Solution for the climate (and even the #1 solution in Project Drawdown’s “Scenario 1”), it’s imperative that everyone takes measures to minimize their food waste to zero. To help, we’ve put together seven easy food storage tips that will make your groceries last longer and help you reduce your household food waste.
Water is your friend
Store chopped carrots and celery in jars or airtight containers of cold water to extend their lifespan by weeks. This is a tip I picked up while working in restaurants and believe me, it works wonders. Carrots and celery will last maybe two weeks in the fridge when left alone, but this storage technique has kept my produce fresh for up to five weeks!
It’s best to do this as soon as possible after purchase, but if you’re like me and a bit of a procrastinator, you might have left your carrots loose in the fridge long enough for them to dehydrate. If your carrots look perfectly fresh but bend like Gumby, it means they are dehydrated.
But wait! Don’t throw those babies out yet. Simply place them in a container filled with cold water and leave them on the counter. Check on them a day later and they’ll be firmed up and good as new! But before tossing them back in the fridge, do yourself a favor and follow the steps above to store them in water. You’ll thank yourself later.
And so is the freezer
Have you ever bought a bunch of fresh cilantro from the grocery store for taco night? You use about one-one hundredth of the bunch for your tacos, and when you reach for it again four days later it’s already dark green and dripping wet from the wilted leaves.
This used to be a regular occurrence in my household until recently when I learned that herbs can be frozen too! Freezing herbs correctly will preserve their freshness for months past their one-week expiration date when kept in the fridge.
There are several different ways to freeze herbs. For each method, you’ll want to wash and pat or spin the herbs dry to remove any dirt or residue before freezing.
- Hardier herbs (like rosemary, dill, thyme, bay, or sage) are best frozen in an air-tight container. Lay the herbs out on a baking sheet and place in the freezer for about an hour. Once frozen, place them in an airtight container or freezer-safe bag, squeezing out as much air as possible as you close the bag. When you’re ready to use them, simply remove the sprigs one at a time.
- Tender herbs (like cilantro and parsley) are best frozen in water. Remove the leaves from the stems, chop (if desired), place into the sections of an ice cube tray, and cover the herbs with water. For ease of use in future recipes, measure the herb into tablespoons before sectioning. Once frozen, transfer the cubes into an airtight container or freezer-safe bag.
- For recipes that use oil, like soups, stews, sauces, and roasts, freezing herbs in oil is a great method to preserve freshness. This is very similar to the above method using water: just remove the leaves from the stems, chop (if desired), place into an ice cube tray, and add oil to cover the herbs. Once they’re frozen, remove from the tray and place the cubes in an airtight container or freezer bag.
Be sure to label your herbs before storing them in the freezer—these cubes can be hard to distinguish once frozen! For each method, your herbs can last in the freezer for up to twelve months. This is a wonderful tradition to practice during peak harvest season for your favorite herbs to ensure you have fresh-tasting herbs (and minimal food waste) all year round.
Banish foods to the basement
Potatoes, squash, onions, and garlic must be stored in a dark, cool, and dry environment, like a basement or cellar if available. If not, a kitchen cabinet that sits away from a heat source (like the oven or stove) will also keep these veggies happy.
Moisture is the enemy with these foods, which is why they won’t stay as fresh if stored in the fridge. This is also why you should keep these foods out of plastic bags to avoid trapping any moisture. Place your produce in a bowl, basket, or mesh bag to allow for proper ventilation that will keep your spuds looking fresh!
Even though these items should all be stored in the same kind of environment, they shouldn’t necessarily be stored together. Onions emit high levels of ethylene gas, which causes potatoes (and other produce) to ripen faster. If stored together, your potatoes will go bad much sooner than expected.
Like onions, the stem of bananas also releases a large amount of ethylene gas. Don’t put your bananas in a plastic bag, or be sure to take them out of their plastic if they were purchased that way. By trapping the ethylene gas in the bag, your bananas will rot sooner than you can say bananas!
This also means that you should store your bananas away from other produce items to prevent any produce sharing the counter space from going bad. In addition to isolating, consider hanging your bananas from a hook to both slow the release of ethylene and keep your bananas’ bottoms from bruising.
If you’re planning on eating your banana fresh, you can stick it in the fridge when it reaches ripening perfection to extend the quality by a day or two. If your bananas over ripen, peel and break them up into chunks, then freeze those chunks in an airtight container to save for your morning smoothie or a healthy nice cream dessert! Or, if you’ve let them go a bit too long, mostly-brown bananas can still be made into a delicious banana bread.
The infinite green onion
Green onions are another produce item that we ended up tossing all the time in our house until we learned this trick: remove any rubber bands and store your green onions root-side down in a tall jar or cup with an inch or two of water and place them in your windowsill. Change or add water every couple of days as needed.
Not only will your scallions stay fresh for much longer than they would if stored in the fridge, they will also continue to sprout more stems! Just place the white roots back in water after removing stems for a dish. Make sure the top edges are above the waterline and in a few days new green stems will emerge!
Once the new stems are about four to five inches long, you’ll want to repot your bulbs. Your onions will continue to sprout for some time, but without repotting they will weaken and eventually stop sprouting.
When you need more scallions for a dish, simply cut the stem as needed! How’s that for a money-saving magic trick?
Refrigerate nuts & seeds
PSA: You should be refrigerating your nuts and seeds!
There’s nothing worse than the burnt plastic taste of a bad nut. They look perfectly normal, but pop one in your mouth and you’ll regret it. I used to store my nuts and seeds in the pantry like everyone else, but this is a misconception! Nuts and seeds should be refrigerated because they contain delicate fats that turn rancid when exposed to light, oxygen, and heat.
Nuts and seeds will last in a cool, dark, dry place for two to three months, but refrigerating them will maintain freshness for up to a year. They’ll last even longer in the freezer!
If your nuts start to taste stale, just toast them in the oven at 350° for about ten minutes. This will refresh the flavor of stale nuts, but will not improve spoiled ones, so be sure to label your nuts with the date they were put into storage and use the oldest ones first.
There’s nothing easier than letting a box of leafy greens go unused and turn bad. While having a food plan for your greens is the best way to keep them out of the trash, storing them properly helps keep them fresh for longer, giving you a bit more leeway with your plan.
For optimal storage, first make sure you remove any rubber bands, twist ties, or other constricting packaging items from your greens. Then, wash and dry your greens thoroughly by either air drying or using a towel or salad spinner. I can’t stress this step enough, because excess moisture will encourage your greens to wilt before you ever have a chance to use them.
After drying, you can store your greens by wrapping them loosely in a tea towel and placing them in a glass storage container. Or, you can seal them in a reusable food storage bag, as long as they are loose and not packed tight into the bag. With either option, make sure they’re kept in a cooler part of the fridge to preserve freshness: either in a crisper or towards the back.
Another option is to freeze your greens! Freezing leafy greens will extend their lifespan tenfold, keeping them tasting fresh for up to a year. Follow these blanching and freezing directions from University of Minnesota Extension to ensure your greens stay fresh far past their shelf life.
Some food storage rules are universal across all food and produce types. Always keep older storage towards the front, and new storage to the back. When you go to grab for an item, the oldest should always be most easily accessible.
And just in case your items get jumbled in your fridge or freezer, be sure to date and label everything that goes in there. Try to clean out your freezer at least once a year to keep all your items visible and organized.
Reducing your food waste is more difficult than it sounds. Getting into the habit of only buying food you’re going to eat, properly storing the food you do buy, and making sure nothing goes to waste requires a big shift in habits.
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